Monday, March 21, 2016

ALL STAR RECOMMENDS FOR MARCH 22ND


Hi there,

A few things to briefly ramble about before we get to it:

· Last week, the comics industry collectively said, “You may think you’re getting sick and tired of SF comics, but you’re totally wrong” and unleashed the long-awaited reprint of Enki Bilal’s The Nikopol Trilogy, the collected hardcover edition of Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham’s Nameless and one of the year’s most marquee arrivals, Dan Clowes’ Patience. I got about a third of the way through Patience before I realised I was way too tired to appreciate it fully I’ll be starting it all over again as soon as I’m done here and reading all the way through. Feel free to let me know your thoughts on it, positive or negative, I’m curious.

· I did manage to read the third chapter of Azzarello, Miller, Kubert and Janson’s DKIII and while I appreciate how much Janson brings to the project in making Kubert’s pencils as 80’s-era Miller as possible, narratively I’m wondering if Azz didn’t get his hands on Miller’s old, aborted Batman vs Al-Qaeda plot (that eventually became the fascinatingly awful Holy Terror) and retooled it somewhat. Probably not, but that’s some pretty on-the-nose “subtext” there in issue three. I am super curious (pun intended) to see how the story plays out. (Also, isn’t it amazing that we nearly had Batman vs Osama bin Laden at the same time as Morrison’s self-proclaimed “hairy chest love god” Batman? Crazy. He’s the most flexible and diverse single character ever created, in my opinion. Think of a story, pop Batman in it, there’s always a way to make it work. Hail the Bat.)

· Finally if, like me, you cannot watch Daredevil season 2 until your spouse returns from an overseas sojourn, I have an alternative for you. Preacher comes to our TVs this year and one of writer Garth Ennis’ strongest influences on that series was the work of Texan writer Joe R Lansdale. Lansdale’s beloved trouble-making duo Hap (straight, white, democrat) and Leonard (gay, black, republican) have also hit the screen in a series, naturally, called Hap & Leonard. As a guy who’s been reading Lansdale since 1991, I am proud (and relieved) to say the show is flat out terrific. Go look it up if you need something to tide you over.



COMIC OF THE WEEK : BATGIRL/ROBIN YEAR ONE
By Scott Beatty, Chuck Dixon, Javier Pulido & Marcos Martin
Published By DC Comics

In the last few weeks, we’ve had future Batman and the vilest hardboiled spin on the Joker, so it’s about time we got to some straight-ahead, classic superhero Batman action. To me that doesn’t get much better than writers Beatty & Dixon’s work on two Year One tales, those of Robin and Batgirl, gorgeously illustrated by a pair of the best modern mainstream artists, Javier (Hawkeye, She-Hulk) Pulido and Marcos (Daredevil, The Private Eye) Martin. Both mini-series are perfect examples of if it ain’t broke don’t fix it Caped Crusader heroics and now come conveniently packaged together in a 450 page collection.

Dixon is easily one of the medium’s best when it comes to straight-forward superhero action. No matter the project, his grip on his characters is consistently rock solid. He introduces his cast and puts them to work almost immediately and seemingly effortlessly. He’s not without controversy, however, claiming that his conservative political views have cost him jobs. It’s worth noting that these views never impacted his work or his rock solid characterisation – as he himself has noted, “I had Bruce Wayne and Batman speak out against gun ownership even though I’m long time NRA member.” He’s sorely needed back at DC, in my opinion. Co-writer Beatty may not have the name that Dixon does, but his ability to come in and pinch hit on short DC stints (mainly Bat-books) and turn in solid work made him a reliable pro. He’s probably most notable for his work writing those DK superhero encyclopaedia books that are virtually everywhere.

Robin: Year One was originally published in four prestige format books back in 2001. Boasting probably the most beautiful and elegant artwork of Pulido’s career, Robin: Year One is almost the anti-Batman: Year One in that it’s (largely) joyful, playful and rollicking, rather than the bleak, grim, angsty noir of Miller and Mazzucchelli’s seminal Bat book. Filled with all the gadgetry, cartoonish villains, deathtraps and swashbuckling action that a reader could possibly ask for, it’s Robin’s rite of passage, emphasising that although his commitment to bringing criminals to justice is the equal to that of Batman, he and the Bat are worlds apart in personality.

Pulido’s Batman is either rendered as a shape emerging from or descending into shadow or a svelte costumed athlete and with hints of Darwyn Cooke, Bruce Timm and even some Mike Mignola added to his cartoonish style, Pulido goes all out with this project. He melds every Bat influence you can imagine, from the grimness of Year One to the retro classic look of the ‘90s animated series, to the brightness of the ‘60s Adam West and Burt Ward show. His Robin is lithe, acrobatic and, most importantly, young and boyish, clearly the light that Bruce so desperately needed at this point in his life and career. Pulido showcases the dynamic between Batman and Robin in incredibly clever ways, such as a scene where the duo crash a dingy pool hall full of thugs. Batman swings on a light illuminating a pool table, keeping himself in shadow, but inadvertently shines the light on his young partner who leaps across the table in a burst of red and yellow.

Wisely skipping any unnecessary origin retelling (Robin’s past is not mentioned at all), Robin: Year One opens with Dick Grayson already taken in by Bruce Wayne and already in costume. One of the book’s main focus points is on Batman making Robin earn his costume and, naturally, the young Grayson falters along the way. Dixon and Beatty use narration sparingly, wisely allowing Pulido’s beautiful art as much room to breathe on the page as possible. When narrative captions do come, they are from Alfred Pennyworth, whose kind heart and conflicted emotions about Dick’s chosen path add maternal warmth in contrast to Batman’s stern patriarchal figure. Re-reading this book made me realise how much I’ve missed Alfred, his voice captured perfectly by the writers who express his deep concern for Dick across captions like: “I fear I am once more watching a child barter his youth away in the service of justice, a thankless cause to be sure.”

Dixon and Beatty squeeze in public school and high society events, demonstrating Dick’s egoless, working class ethic in his relationship with school peers and encounters, his insistence on attending a public school and his awkwardness in meeting political figures. The characterisation is just spot on all round, from a truly dualistic Two-Face (drawn with relish by Pulido as something almost demonic), to the briefest sequence with The Joker, to a taciturn Captain Gordon, also concerned with this young sidekick’s wellbeing.

Robin: Year One is a virtually flawless example of mainstream superheroics, its only real problem being an unfortunate Asian villain in the opening chapter who kidnaps young white girls (preferably blonde) to, essentially, be his sex slaves. A rather tasteless and dated stereotype more at home in an issue of Master of Kung-Fu from 1978, but there you go. Still, this hiccup aside, Robin: Year One is otherwise a masterful effort, actually getting better with age, each scene rollicking along as perfect examples of zero fat storytelling, with even its quiet moments rivalling its actions sequences for their level of craft, beauty and attention to detail, such as this one:


Almost equal in quality was Robin: Year One’s companion piece, 2003’s nine issue mini-series, Batgirl: Year One. Opening with intercutting scenes of young Barbara Gordon being demeaned as a “little girl,” someone literally too short to pass the physical exams demanded by her dream careers of cop and FBI agent, and her beating criminals up as Batgirl. Barbara cooks breakfast for her top cop dad, is verbally humiliated by a sexist government agent and her Jiu jitsu teacher, yet small in stature but great in intelligence, her disarming physicality goads opponents into overconfidence. “Let them believe they’re closing their grips on a shrinking violet,” Babs narration says as she hands crims their asses and, like Robin, has a blast doing it. Even the slightly belittling name “Batgirl” is handled well by the writers (Beatty taking the lead here) – it’s Killer Moth who bestows the name to her while attempting to kill her. Barbara, empowered and individualistic, would have much preferred Batwoman.

Marcos Martin gamely steps up for the art chores on this project, giving his pages a similarly clean, if slightly more realistic elegance similar to that of the preceding Javier Pulido. The art is, of course because it’s Martin, lovely. In fact, it’s a shame that his pages come cluttered with so much, too much, of Babs’ narration – most of it completely unneeded – a problem Pulido’s work didn’t suffer from in Robin: Year One’s stripped back approach. Having said that, however, Batgirl: Year One still hums along, giving Batfans of all persuasion something to smile about from the burgeoning relationship with Dick Grayson, to the appearance of Blockbuster who outmatches Batgirl on a physical level to an insane degree yet still comes up short, to a team-up with Black Canary, to Batman critical of this latest unwanted apprentice, to her relationship with Jim Gordon, to the motorbike chases, to her first soaring flight across the Gotham skyline, it’s full of all the heart that Robin: Year One packed.

Barbara’s unwillingness to give up, to prove herself the equal of the best crimefighters around and capable of much more than even her proud but dismissive father believes her to be forms the core of her character. There is grit to Babs, real moxie, who (as she should in a tale of this sort) falls down a lot but keeps on getting back up. There’s also a lightness of touch to the tale, a great example of which is a scene in which Babs wakes up to find that as a result of her fight with Firefly the night before she’s got cowl-shaped burns on her face she has to hide from her already suspicious dad. The sense of fun exuberance and movement only makes the foreshadowing of her future career-ending assault at the hands of The Joker all the sadder:


The aesthetic of both these stories, their melding of all sorts of artistic and story influences, may well prove to be the defining Batman style – it certainly is for me – packing as much light in as darkness, showcasing heart over horror and adventure over angst. These are Batman stories about family – who you choose to make your family and how much strength can be found in family. I used to prefer my Batman alone but returning to these stories, I’m no longer sure. These creative teams, in peak form, provide the greatest argument for the richness of story that can be found in extending the Bat-family, for how much Bruce needs Dick and Barbara and for the flexibility of story possibilities they provide. Your Batshelf needs this book.



WEBCOMIC OF THE WEEK : A CARTOONIST’S DIARY: JEN LEE
By Jen Lee

A regular feature at The Comics Journal’s website, A Cartoonist’s Diary welcomed Vacancy creator Jen Lee to its virtual pages last week. I recommend all of her pieces (they are an extended, bittersweet meditation on skies), but selected Day Two simply for the gorgeous, gorgeous colours and utter simplicity. Check it out.




COUNTDOWN TO MOZ METAL: SEPTEMBER 1979

It’s September 1979 and this issue, at least on paper, is absolutely loaded so let’s get to it.

Aliens screenwriter and one-time Moebius comics collaborator, Dan O’Bannon, kicks thing off with “Soft Landing”. O’Bannon is merely credited with “concept” here and that’s a fair credit as he probably just told artist Thomas Warkentin to paint the following over the phone: A space shuttle drops an astronaut in a ‘60s convertible sports car down through the atmosphere for it to land, roughly but safely, in the desert. The end. The incongruity of the visuals associated with such a premise, combined with Warkintin’s lovely painted pages makes this way more interesting than it sounds, there’s something quintessentially HM about it too in a nonsensically stoner dream way, which is probably why it was adapted and used as the opening of the Heavy Metal movie in 1981.

JK Potter’s “The Doll” perfectly demonstrates the peril of inhaling toxic fumes as a homeless man melts a discarded doll over an open fire only to inhale it’s noxious smoke and find himself transported, bad trip style, to a surrealistic, nightmarish realm where the tables are turned and he in turn is skewered and melted over an open fire by a monstrous, mammoth version of the doll. Again, way better than it sounds and pretty stunning stuff visually, with Potter’s mixed media pages really adding a layer of extra weird.

At this point, Alias is putting together a run of short stories in his “Only Connect” that rival even the greatest string of stories by the finest writers who ever worked on 2000 Ads “Future Shock.” These little twisty SF numbers must be incredibly difficult, but Alias constantly knocks them out of the park. This issue, we get the longest and, unfortunately, weakest instalment as a space battle mirrors, move for move, a chess game. It’s lacking both that existential gut punch and the cleverness of a twist that’s been an “Only Connect” hallmark, but having said that, the imagery of warring space ship chess pieces alone should entertain.

“Little Red V-3” by Dominique He is a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood with Robots. A cute little diversion, especially notable for He’s clean and striking inking.

Frank Brunner, one of my fave ever Doctor Strange artists, tackles an adaptation of Michael Moorcock’s legendary Elric character. Considering artists as legendary as Walt Simonson, Philippe Druillet and P. Craig Russell would later turn in striking and distinctive Elric comics, this actually falls short of the mark. Brunner’s work is disappointingly generic…something is lost here. It’s got that lysergic surge that Brunner brought to his best work but it all comes off as a serviceable, workman like rather than transcendent effort.

Things get ominous in part three of Chantal Montellier’s “Shelter,” as the survivors trapped inside the mall are organised into a communal society, to be watched over by rather fascistically-costumed security and headed up by the director of the mall. This remains stellar stuff – shaping up to be a real, true lost classic.

NOTE: next week we skip ahead to November, as the (rather disappointing) October 1979 issue was covered in last year’s Halloween column.




COMICS VIDEO OF THE WEEK : ENKI BILAL DOCUMENTARY 1986

“He says it’s always been more interesting graphically to work with tough, hard images, situations which reach out and grab the reader, aggressive almost, rather than paint a bed of roses and smug optimism. It’s a question of temperament.” That’s Bilal alright.

This short, four minute 1986 documentary (cut off just as it gets good!) looks positively ancient, but packs in a whole lot of gorgeous, striking imagery by the Yugoslavian born artist of The Nikopol Trilogy (re-released just last week by Titan, as mentioned earlier). The dry, English-accented voiceover has the vibe of an old educational video, which oddly suits this curious little movie and the serious artist that is its subject. I asked Lizzie Kaye, Titan editor, if there would be more Bilal and Druillet on the way and she confirmed there would be, soon to be announced in fact. Great news for lovers of both of these massive talents. Let’s not allow the work of either of them to sit out of print in English for so long ever again.



See you next week. Love your comics.



Cameron Ashley spends a lot of time writing comics and other things you’ll likely never read. He’s the chief editor and co-publisher of Crime Factory (www.thecrimefactory.com). You can reach him @cjamesashley on Twitter.

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